In February 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Carter v. Canada that the country’s ban on physician-assisted suicide was in direct violation of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The Court went on to set a one-year deadline for provinces to set their own guidelines for the new law to take effect. A year later, however, there’s no shortage of controversies over how to apply the law, the terms under which it can be enacted, and, perhaps most worrisome, whether there will be adequate conscience protections for medical professionals who object to the law.
In her newly released book, Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars, Margaret Somerville notes that many of our cultural debates center on the beginning and ending of life, and for good reason. Somerville, professor of law and medicine at Quebec’s McGill University, writes:
We have always formed our most important shared values around the two great events of human life, birth and death, and the euthanasia debate will decide whether we will change some of the most important and fundamental of these shared values, in particular respect for human life at both the individual and societal levels.
Judging then by the looming prospect of a law that would radically diminish the value of human life and jeopardize the practice of medicine, the country’s future might seem rather bleak. But as Somerville concludes, it doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to be this way.
In a sweeping analysis of the standard “culture war issues”—debates over abortion, the role of religion in the public square, reproductive technologies, academic freedom, and assisted suicide and euthanasia—Somerville aims to deepen our understanding of what motivates those on opposing sides, and aims to construct a shared ethic that unites individuals and societies in a deeper, more substantive vision of the human person and the communities we inhabit.
A Canadian Contrarian
The title raises the question: What do birds have to do with a book about ethics? Somerville explains, “A cartoon shows a long row of birds perched on a telephone wire between two poles. All of the birds are facing forward, except one. The bird next to him asks, ‘Can’t we talk about it?’”
In a way, Somerville, an Australian native who has called Canada home for the past thirty years, is that bird turned the other way. In a country that is widely hailed as one of the most progressive in the world, she is often a lone voice of caution urging her fellow citizens to think and act more carefully, more prudently, and indeed more sacredly about the values it seeks to promote and maintain. Yet, unlike that bird refusing to fall in line with the others, she is no mere contrarian out of stubbornness. Instead she is the one pleading to talk with her fellow citizens about the ties that bind us as individuals in a shared community—and she is attempting to propose something greater that very much deserves our attention.
In recent decades, ordinary citizens, scientists, policymakers, and popes alike have turned to greater activism to convince the rest of the world that the earth is not indestructible. While differing on their proposals, these people all agree that those of us who are alive now must steward this planet well so that future generations can enjoy and benefit from it as we have. In that same spirit, Somerville pleads with us to exhibit as great a concern for what she terms our “metaphysical ecosystem,” which includes “the values, principles, attitudes, beliefs, shared stories . . . on the basis of which we form our society.”
Such a project, however, will require a rethinking—or rather, a reordering—of that to which most debates in our culture wars have been reduced: battles over personal freedom. In our discussions about issues relating to the beginning and end of life, personal autonomy has become an ultimate trump card. Somerville, an optimist at heart, believes that we can and we must rebalance this notion.
Ethics in Action
Ethics, it is often said, is about asking the right questions. Science and technology have allowed us to achieve remarkable advances in what we can do, but unfortunately there’s often a lack of conversation about what we should do—particularly when it comes to how we treat and value human life. Somerville suggests that we give greater consideration to the moral principles that govern both our conduct and our laws. There are certain values that Somerville hopes the reader can see are interconnected, and one of this book’s great virtues is her ability to elevate readers above the muddle of culture-war debates to see a way forward.
Two key examples of Somerville’s ability to propose a way forward come from two very separate issues: designer babies and academic freedom. The increased use of reproductive technologies, sperm and egg donation in particular, allows some couples to control many characteristics of their children that were previously left up to chance. Parents can seek donors with every desirable trait, from athletic aptitude to intellectual prowess. The advent of technologies such as CRISPR allows for the possibility of targeted genome editing that could forever alter the genes that we pass down to future descendants.
But how might this relate to academic freedom? On university campuses across the United States, Canada, and much of the western world, a new intolerance prohibits faculty members and students from daring to explore or express certain ideas and thoughts—most often ideas concerning human sexuality and gender. Academic freedom is now pitted against political correctness, which at present is winning the day. Professors who hold traditional views about marriage or sex are regularly called bigots (Somerville herself is often the target of such indictments), but the fact that some of these academics—a minority though they may be—have second thoughts about the sexual revolution means that some of their students’ views (and lifestyles) might be challenged.
Somerville points out that both cultural trends involve a certain eugenic behavior—in one case, silencing the exchange of ideas that rightly should happen in a university classroom; and in the other, constructing children in a laboratory to their parents’ specifications. One effort aims to create a class of students who are intellectually stiffened and unable to engage in a vigorous exchange of ideas and to form their own opinions. The other project aims to construct children in a manner controlled by their parents’ desires rather than granting them “a right to their own unique ticket in the great genetic lottery of the passing on of human life . . . a right not to be an intentionally created clone of another human being.”
Somerville goes on to conclude, “If we accept that designing children is wrong, our first obligation in the exercise of academic freedom is to speak out to protect the innate freedom of those who will later become our students.” This type of intergenerational thinking, whether in the laboratory or the lecture hall, reminds us that we live in communities together, not silos, and our actions must reflect as much.
Consider too the debates surrounding euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide that have corroded Canada’s supposed protection of human life—and remain an ongoing threat to those of us in the United States. Some opponents of the practice argue against it using only slippery-slope arguments or discussions of the meaning of human suffering. While Somerville does not dismiss these arguments as illegitimate, she aims to appeal to a shared value of both progressives and conservatives: protecting vulnerable parties. In doing so, Somerville makes a case not only that the law’s role is to protect vulnerable parties (such as the seriously depressed, the elderly, and the dying), but that we must also realize we are all vulnerable as human beings—and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When we recognize that we are interdependent, we also increase in gratitude. A growing awareness of gratitude, Somerville argues, will help rebalance the scales between autonomy and the protection of the common good. This will also help improve the way we think about caring for the elderly and the dying, and will lead us to reject suicide in any form, knowing that it is never a solitary act.
In wading into the abortion debates, Somerville rejects the tired argument that abortion is simply a question of an individual’s privacy. Through the lens of sex-selective abortion she illustrates that it is fundamentally a social question. As the 160 million missing girls in India and China bear witness, sex-selective abortion isn’t just about one individual’s choice—it’s up to an entire society to decide whether we want to permit such atrocities. And even in Canada, 92% of Canadians believe the practice should be illegal. Might this then provide a new opening to reconsidering the practice as a whole?
Whether she is discussing the issue of academic freedom, designer children, euthanasia, or abortion, Somerville works continually to reframe the way we discuss and think about these issues. Freedom, the Holy Grail of modern public discourse, is continually misunderstood as doing what we please instead of what we ought—but even by the most permissive definition, this fundamental value of our culture should demand that all opinions deserve to be heard, and that all members of society have the right to contribute to these conversations.
Mystery vs. Mastery
Given the current state of our debates—in which certain voices are quick to be silenced and certain ideas dismissed as outdated or irrelevant—we may well ask if a solution exists. Somerville believes it does. As cultural battles rage on and various sides promote competing narratives to argue why certain values must triumph, Somerville argues that we must recover and promote a new sense of wonder and awe concerning human life and dignity.
If we shift the paradigm from the language of “choice” and “change” to that of experiencing amazement, wonder, and awe, we very well may achieve a greater appreciation “that we belong to something larger than ourselves and that our actions matter, for good or harm, beyond just us.”
Such a lens would promote greater respect for life in its nascent stages and would yield deeper gratitude for the disabled, the elderly, and the dying. It would recall the tools of medicine to their original and most important use as an art dedicated to healing, affirming that life at all stages must be approached with a sense of mystery rather than technical mastery. Finally, it would create an environment, or ecosystem, in which the free exchange of ideas leads to dialogue rather than dismissal.
What type of world are we leaving for our great-grandchildren to inhabit? This is ultimately what Somerville invites us to ponder. Bird on an Ethics Wire raises provocative questions that should lead to soul searching. But if we heed Somerville’s wisdom and accept the amazement and mystery of what life offers, we must have hope, “without which our spirit dies.”
Those birds on the wire aren’t merely cartoon characters. They serve as symbols, too. Birds often represent the desire for freedom, with their ability to take flight and soar far above the troubled earth. In mythology, however, human efforts to take flight lead too close to the sun and to an eventual burning crash. Somerville offers a different path, suggesting that we can rise above the turmoil of cultural debate so that our spirits and souls too may soar.
Christopher White is the Project Director of the Paul Ramsey Institute at the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.